15 February 2012

'Silly Little Questions To Trip People Up'

There's been much sniggering throughout the British religious blogosphere at Richard Dawkins' embarrassing performance on the Today show yesterday morning where, challenged by Giles Fraser, Professor D proved himself incapable of naming Charles Darwin's most famous book in full:
'On the Origin of Species... er... with... uh... Oh God... uh... On the Origin of Species... um... there is a subtitle... er... um... eh... With Respect to the Preservation of favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.'
Yes, he got the subtitle slightly wrong and left out surely the most important phrase in the title, that being the mechanism Darwin identified as essential to evolution. The correct title, for the record, is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

More sensible atheists had their heads in their hands over this one, but in truth, while it showed Dawkins for the posturing hypocrite he is, demanding standards of others he cannot meet himself, the real story was more interesting.

Dawkins and Fraser were on the show to discuss a recent poll conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Institute for the Smug which purported to find that even among those Britons who self-identify as Christians there is a very low level of religious commitment.

The purpose of this poll was, according to Richard, to break down the real meaning of whatever the 2011 census poll's question on religious should superficially reveal.
'It was very important to clarify the real meaning behind the religion question in the census, given that -- unfortunately -- the census asked a religion question at all.'
Leaving aside whether or not the census should have been asking a religious question -- and I've no doubt Professor Dawkins would have been quite happy for it to have done so had he expected the numbers to stack up in his favour rather than spectacularly against him -- I think this is, in principle, a worthy project.

In principle. Not necessarily in practice. Certainly not when the people doing the unpacking don't know what they're talking about.

Richard takes the view that most of those whose self-identify as Christians aren't truly Christian, that they aren't really Christians at all and don't think like Christians -- whatever that means -- merely ticking the Christian box, perhaps because they've been baptised. Of course, he makes a point of conceding -- after proclaiming such conclusions -- that his view on this doesn't mean squat:
'I'm not presenting my opinion here. This press released is offered to people to look down it and say "Look, these people who call themselves Christians actually don't read the Bible, don't go to church, don't believe Jesus was the Son of God, don't even know what the first book of the New Testament is -- it's up to you to make up your mind whether they're Christian." Don't ask me. My opinion is not relevant.'
Well. Quite.

After all that, only 6% are Atheists?
As Fraser points out, one of the results the survey clearly reveals is that only 6 per cent of the Britons surveyed said they didn't believe in God; a further 7 per cent either declined to answer the question, took issue with it, or said they didn't know. This isn't a detail Richard's been keen to proclaim.

If we're to give this survey any credibility, and I'm really not sure that we should, this figure must be recognised as remarkable, since it seems to suggest that despite all the efforts of Professor Dawkins and his ilk, religious belief -- however nebulous -- may even have grown since 2001.

Yes, grown. This survey suggests that in the 2011 census, 33 per cent of people would have said they're of no religion, with 1 per cent not knowing and a further 2 per cent declining to say. When compared to the 2001 census, that seems to point to a huge jump in disbelief, given that in 2001 only 15 per cent of Britons declared themselves of no religion, and 8 per cent, for whatever reason, didn't answer the question.

The thing is, as Giles Fraser rightly recognises, there's another question on Richard's survey which asks people what their view of God is. This question suggests that only 10 per cent of Britons either disbelieve or doubt the existence of God, with 2 per cent declining to answer the question and 1 per cent taking issue with the suggested answers.

I'm surprised that we haven't seen any headlines announcing 'Britain Only 6% Atheist - Dawkins Survey Finds'.

Of course the trick here is to disregard Richard's recommendation for us to read the press release, and instead to look at the actual surveys under discussion. They're definitely worth a look, especially with regard to Richard's claim that most of the questions being asked are fundamental to the Christian religion.

Let's take a look at a few, shall we? You'll see very quickly that the survey in general, not to mention how it's being presented, is marked by lazy presumptions about what Christians ought to be like.

Q3. You have said that you defined your religion in the Census as Christian or that you would have done so if you had answered the Census question yourself. Why do you think of yourself as being of this religion? Please select as many as apply.
Remarkably, given that people could tick as many boxes that apply, it's staggering that only 1 per cent of self-identifying Christians say that one of the reasons why they call themselves Christian is because they believe in the religion. I'm not sure how that differs from believing in the teachings of the religion, which 28 per cent of the self-identifying Christians went along with, but there you have it. In any case, it rather suggests that people just didn't fill out the form properly or weren't encouraged to do so.

They may have been in a hurry.

The first possible answer relates to baptism, with 72 per cent of self-identifying Christians say they regard themselves as Christians -- at least in part -- because they were baptised. Richard has contempt for this viewpoint, seeing this as an irrelevance -- such people are merely ticking the Christian box, to his mind -- but this rather reveals his total cluelessness of what baptism has always been regarded as in historical Christianity.

The word 'Christian', contrary to popular myth, doesn't mean 'follower of Christ'. Rather, as first deployed in Acts, it rather means someone who belongs to Christ. It means a member of Christ's household -- a slave or a family member. The crucial thing here is that it's not really a matter of our choice; we are Christians because we are Christ's, and it's baptism that makes us members of his household. Baptism is, if you like, the Christian circumcision. It's the rite that makes us irrevocably Christ's, signifying and effecting our adoption as sons and daughters of God. It's the sacrament that makes us Christians in the most profound and meaningful way.

This is the reason why I get uneasy when friends of mine say that I became a Christian after studying the historical evidence; rather, I became a Christian because when I was a baby my parents ensured that I was baptised into Christ and was indelibly marked as a member of his household, but only really came to believe in the truth of what the Church teaches as an adult, after studying the historical evidence.

What we think is as nothing compared to what Christ does. Ultimately, it's not about us. Richard seems incapable of understanding this.

Now, as it happens, although this understanding of baptism is how it has been historically understood, and still reflects how baptism is understood by most Christians, there are no shortage of Christians who would disagree with it.

These tend to include those Protestants who say that one becomes a Christian when one accepts Jesus into one's heart. There are lots of these, including most Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Does Richard's survey give them the opportunity of answering the question in the way most meaningful to them?

Don't be silly. Of course it doesn't. This survey is as unfair to Evangelicals as Professor Dawkins' interpretation of it is unfair to Catholics, the Orthodox, and those of the Catholic tendency in the Church of England.

Q6. Apart from special occasions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms or christenings, how often IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS have you attended services or meetings connected with Christianity?
And, of course, it's shocking -- shocking, I tell you! -- that only 17 per cent of self-identifying Christians attend services once a week or more, with a total of 29% attending at least once a month.

It's certainly disappointing, especially among Catholics, to see such a low rate of attendance, but do other denominations require such regular attendance as the Catholic Church? It is, after all, a precept of the Church that the faithful should attend Mass each Sunday and holy day of obligation, and a precept that's sadly all too often ignored, but are Anglicans, for instance, bound to such a precept?

I've known devout Anglicans, humble and kind, frequent and careful readers of their Bibles who are involved in Church activities of one sort or another, who will nonetheless think little of missing out on services if they clash with other things; to their mind, they can read the Bible and pray alone, and if they feel a need for exposition of whatever they've read, they can track down sermons online!

This is pretty much an inevitable consequence of what happens when the Eucharist isn't central to your faith and worship.

Q10. How often, if at all, do you pray independently and from choice? I mean when NOT in a church service or other religious meeting.
The remarkable thing here is that Church services aren't seen as things people engage in independently and from choice. Given that the survey was conducted among adults -- well, people aged fifteen and up, which may skew the figures somewhat given teenagers' tendencies to muck about -- this strikes me as very odd. It would be bad news for, say, daily massgoers who also attend Rosary or Divine Mercy groups and join with other Christians to pray the Office, if they didn't also pray in isolation.

That said, while the figure of a mere 35 per cent freely praying on a regular basis on their own is disappointing, I think it's a pretty murky figure. I would have no way of quantifying how often I pray. Do Dawkins and Co understand that there can be pretty profound differences between 'praying' and 'saying your prayers'? The latter can often be the former, of course, but the former is by no means limited to the latter.

Q19. Which of the following statements best describes YOUR personal view of God? Please read out the letter for your answer.
This is my favourite, as it seems set up so that Christians are forced to choose between the box bearing the invisible subtitle 'I am a bigot' and the one bearing the invisible subtitle 'I am a relativist'.  There's no answer here that I can happily pick, except for 'None of these'.

It's an interesting one, in that it seems that 54 per cent of people surveyed see God as a personal being, with 9 per cent being old fashioned deists, 13 per cent being pantheists, 10 per cent holding some manner of vaguely spiritual notion of God, 4 per cent admitting that they didn't know, and just 6 per cent of people saying they don't believe in God. That's probably the real headline figure. 6 per cent.

Why wouldn't I be happy with this? Well, I fall squarely between the first two answers proposed; indeed, I'd say Catholics in general and plenty of other Christians do too. The first proposed answer is as follows:
'I believe in God and I believe that Christianity is the only true way of knowing him.'
Thing is, that's not quite true. Christianity teaches that nobody can approach the Father save through the Son, but it doesn't teach that nobody can approach the Father save through Christianity. I'm not even sure -- in this sense -- what 'Christianity' means. Does it mean Christian teachings? Does it mean the teachings of the myriad Protestant denominations? Does it mean membership of the Church? Does it mean attending coffee mornings and Student discussions? Does it mean any variant of Christianity is okay, as long as it's Christian? What about the odder Protestants who don't regard Catholics as really Christian and who seem wholly unaware of the Orthodox? What about my SSPX friend (sigh) who says that Protestants are members of false religions?

For what it's worth, Romans makes its clear that it's possible to know God from the world He has made, and while such knowledge would be imperfect, that doesn't mean it would be false...

That would seem to point me towards the second answer, then:
'I believe in God and I believe that Christianity is just one way of knowing him.'
Of course, the problem with this is that Christianity isn't just one way of knowing him; it is, rather many ways of knowing them, these not being equal to each other and not being equal to various non-Christian paths to God.

Without getting into theological language, and while staying within the crude misrepresentations of this idiotic survey, how hard would it have been for Richard and his pals to have offered as a possible answer, 'I believe in God and I believe that Christianity is the best way of knowing him'?

Q20. When, if at all, did you last read any part of the Bible? I mean independently and from choice, and not as part of a church service or other religious meeting.
What constitutes a part of the Bible? A fragment? A phrase? Richard has babbled elsewhere about how the King James Bible is part of the air the English breathe, and it strikes me as unlikely that only 15 per cent of people have read any of the Bible in the last week.

Presumably he means, however, sitting down to read the Bible, but he's phrased this in a peculiarly Protestant way. Aside from the presumption that adults don't attend church services or religious meetings from choice, this question is marked by a total obliviousness to the fact that the Bible was written and assembled with a view to being read publicly. The whole debate over the Canon between the mid-second and the late-fourth centuries was essentially a running battle over which books were suitable for public proclamation as part of the liturgy.

That's not to say that we shouldn't read the Bible in private, of course; it's very good to do so and the Church encourages this, as ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ, but we shouldn't in any sense confuse the private reading of the Bible with seriousness about faith. I'd be pretty confident that most Christians in the world rarely read the Bible in private, just as I'd be confident that the vast majority of Christians throughout history -- and especially in the first fifteen centuries of the Church -- wouldn't have done so.

We in the UK have opportunities to read the Bible that many of our ancestors lacked, but our failure to take those opportunities shouldn't be misconstrued as a mere nominal Christianity.

Dawkins here is very close to the late Christopher Hitchens' ludicrous claim that a Christian is, by definition, somebody who has read the New Testament. Nonsense in the first, fourth, twelfth, and fifteenth centuries, it's no less nonsensical now.

Q22. Which of the following statements BEST describes your personal view of the Bible as a guide to morality? Please read out the letter for your answer.
This bit's complete tosh, as it's clearly been written in the assumption that the 'ideal' Christian is a sola sciptura Protestant, despite such folk never having existed before the sixteenth century and being a decided minority in the Christian world even now. Again, I don't think there was even one answer offered that I could have agreed with in good conscience.

Why? Because the three substantive issues presented the Bible -- in isolation -- as a guide to morality. Not a hint there of the role of Sacred Tradition or the Magesterium or how the Bible must be read within the Church. As I've said before, the rulebook doesn't work in isolation: we need a referee.

Frankly, I'm not even convinced about Matthew being the right answer to the question 'What is the first book of the NEW Testament?' For my money it'd be First Thessalonians.

Q54. Do you consider yourself to be a religious person?
This one's a beauty. Dawkins and his droogs are delighted at the fact that only 45 per cent of Britons would seemingly tick this box, with 50 per cent of people saying that they're not religious. Of course, yet again such an interpretation merely shows the poverty of Richard's understanding.

I know of no shortage of people who would claim that Christianity is a relationship rather than a religion, and it was a common refrain of one of the ministers at my friends' Evangelical Anglican church that we're not called to be religious. Indeed, you could hardly move through the Christian blogosphere a few weeks back without stumbling across this chap proclaiming that he hates religion but loves Jesus.

I'm not saying I'd take his line, of course -- quite the opposite, in fact -- but there are a lot of Christians who would. If Dawkins doesn't understand that, then it's just another item to add to the long list of things that show how shamefully ignorant he is of the that which he so scornfully and obsessively condemns.

And it goes on...

There's a whole extra section on the implications of belief for our lives and how we think the country should be run, but I may leave that for another day. What does keep striking me, though, is the sheer bizarreness of Richard Dawkins' argument that because Britain isn't -- in his view -- a predominantly Christian country, there is no need for faith schools.

I would have thought that if people of faith are in a minority there's an even more pressing argument for them having schools of their own in order to preserve whatever it is that they uniquely offer society. But perhaps Richard just thinks it should be purged from the public realm.

For starters.


Tonia Marshall said...

He seems to be heading in the same direction as Obama on how many Catholics use contraception.

Even if there is only a small number of fully practising faithful, religious freedom is about respecting the principles the religion holds to, not measuring how many people stick to them.

Tom said...

I'm more concerned by the fact that while trying to recall the title of his preferred biblical tome, he called the Lord's name in vain. Perhaps he's not as atheist as he claims?

Lynda said...

I especially like how Mr Dawkins so aptly placed God in the title of Darwin's Origin of Species!

Courtney said...

Q.29 must have been a bit disturbing for the Professor:

"The Genesis story that God created the world and all the life forms in it in 6 days
should not be taught in UK state-funded school science lesson"

31% disagreed with this statement and so favour creationism in the science classroom. And a further 24 % don't actually mind.

Now I know this is only from those who identified themselves as Christian on the census - but this suggests a remarkably high % of the UK population is quite at ease with not only alternatives to evolution being taught as science, but more specifically absolute biblical literal creationism.

I don't know whether this tells us more about British attitudes to religion or science.

Anonymous said...

As always a well balanced, informative post.
Many thanks.
Blessings and prayers,